The ability to compose a brief, effective summary is an important communication skill in the workplace. Summarizing allows you to convey important information in a variety of situations concisely. In this article, we discuss why summarizing is an essential professional skill and outline how to write a summary for your next big meeting or project status update.
When to use summaries in the workplace
Summaries can provide an effective way to communicate in the workplace when used correctly. A useful summary is accurate, has a thesis and captures the main ideas of content in a way that is concise and easy to communicate to coworkers and stakeholders.
You can use summaries in the workplace in several ways:
- Meeting minutes: Meeting minutes are notes that summarize the outcome of a meeting.
- Executive summaries: You can use these summaries in sales pitches, proposals and project management documents.
- Email communication: Effective emails are brief and make a point. Summarizing content in email can help you keep your digital communication productive.
- Texting and other communication platforms: Sometimes, work occurs over text messaging or another communication platform. In these cases, using a summary of longer content can help keep your readers engaged.
- Board presentations: Successful presentations with stakeholders rely on presenters who can concisely summarize what’s happening in business operations.
- Crisis management and resolution: When a crisis occurs, it’s important to act fast to resolve it. Sometimes that means refining lengthy communications to the most important concepts that need to be communicated to resolve the issue. When a crisis has been resolved, many organizations require a summary of the events.
What makes a good summary?
Being able to write a compelling summary allows you to communicate big ideas in a small space. Even if you don’t realize you’re doing it, most people are composing summaries all the time in their daily communication.
When you’re telling a friend about a movie you recently watched or how your dinner with your family went the night before, you’re summarizing. Learning the elements that make a good professional summary and being able to apply those elements effectively are key skills to develop when you begin writing summaries. An effective professional summary tends to have all or most of these elements:
- Identification of the source: A summary will typically start by identifying its source by name. This is so the reader immediately understands the context.
- Paraphrasing: A good summary will be mostly made up of paraphrasing the source in your own words, avoiding the exact phrasing of the original content. This reinforces your understanding of the source as a writer as well as allows you to condense the message.
- Quotation: If the exact phrasing is important and you need to use the original wording from your source in your summary, use quotes.
- Free of personal bias: A summary is meant to reflect the source work as accurately as possible. It’s best to use neutral language that avoids any tone of opinion. When paraphrasing the source, use precise, indifferent phrasing.
- Third-person: Writing a summary in the third-person helps you to avoid influencing the tone. Just like with maintaining a neutral tone, this assists the summary in reflecting the source as accurately as possible.
- Covering the original work as a whole: A summary should outline the source material from start to end and include as much of the source as it can. Be mindful of what details from the source you choose to keep in your summary and which you choose to leave out.
- Present tense: Even though your summary is referencing a past experience, it is standard practice in written professional summaries to address the source in present tense.
How to write a summary effectively
Once you know the essential elements of a professional summary, writing one is a process that can be broken down into its fundamental steps. Follow these steps to put together a summary:
- Read or listen to the source content. If you have the option, you may want to read or listen to the source more than once. Going through the source material multiple times will help you better understand what the source is trying to say and do. The better you know the source, the easier it is to write a compelling summary.
- Put together a thesis. The thesis is a more succinct version of your summary. Your thesis should be one or two sentences that broadly describe the entirety of the source material as briefly as possible. A well-written thesis should be based on the central theme of the source and should always express the goal of the source material.
- Outline the content, breaking it down into its main ideas. Break up your source material into sections. Try to understand the main idea of each section and how it relates to your thesis, and organize them so there is a clear transition between each idea.
- Write a draft of your summary from your notes. Using your thesis and your outline, write the first draft of your summary in a way that logically connects each of your sections and main ideas. You don’t need to use every single section you’ve broken your source into. Try removing parts that don’t relate strongly to the thesis to keep your summary between 200 and 500 words. When you write your draft, write it without referring back to the source material.
- Check your draft for accuracy. If you have access to your source material, compare it to your summary. Take notes on the differences and ask yourself if the summary is a good representation of the source, if it’s missing anything important or if there are any unnecessary details.
- Revise and edit your work for style and quality. Adjust your draft based on your notes on how your summary compared to the source. During this step, you should double-check that your work meets the elements of a good summary listed above and that it is free of grammatical and clerical errors.
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 until your summary doesn’t need changes. After revising your summary, go back and compare it to the source again if you’re able. Look for anything you may have missed in your original accuracy check and make the proper revisions if you find anything. Repeat this process until you’re confident in your final summary.
Summary writing is a professional skill you can work to refine regardless of where you are in your career. You can practice the process by writing a professional summary of your favorite book, including as many of the elements of an effective summary as possible. With practice, you will get quicker at each step in the process and need fewer revisions to write a summary that is a good representation of the source.